Where is the Music Going? A defence of Pop's increasing concision, by Elizabeth Baker
Pop music and modern song-writing has recently found itself scrutinised for getting shorter. Accusations of ‘selling out’ hang, suggesting that today’s music is sacrificing authenticity in favour of designing profitable songs for streaming platforms. These suspicions of commodification surrounding pop music have given rise to a revelation in pop journalism pieces that streaming platforms are changing the structure of pop music.
It is true that streaming platforms are dominating the music market, and that artists have begun to tailor their crafts to the demands of this new incentive structure. Namely, pop songs are becoming shorter. Michael Tauberg’s research has recorded this modern phenomenon in a series of graphs:
But is it simply a case of ‘where is the music going’? Why does the idea of artists creating for money frighten us so much? To understand the appeal of the shorter pop song, it’s most important to know one thing: Spotify pays artists per song streamed. So, not only are pop songs getting shorter, but albums are getting longer. This strategy encourages listeners to stream a higher number of songs and, in turn, earns more for the artists and their streaming platforms.
You may find yourself wondering what does this say about our society? The immediate assumption may be that our society is suffering from a chronic shortening of attention span. Automatically, we reach for our modern scapegoats of social media and immediate gratification. Yet, pop songs of the 30s and 40s were typically 3 minutes long.
It actually wasn’t until albums took off in the 60s that songs began getting longer again. Still these condemnations persevere: injecting a sense of worthlessness into modern music. Seeing the hand that our economy has in pop music so persistently as new and villainous, seems intent on disregarding the artistry of modern music. Here, artistic integrity and the commodification of art, are seen as inherently opposite. But maybe this relationship is better considered as symbiotic...
So what are we comparing pop to? What does the current artistic process say about our society that is actually different to any other? Artists have always had to work within their own economic structures to fund and create their art. Mozart’s great opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, was commissioned by Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Hardy and Dickens released their chapters weekly as series in magazines; Tchaikovsky recognized his friend and patron von Meck as an artistic partner by dedicating the Symphony No. 4 in F minor to her; The Last Supper sits beneath the coats of arms that belonged to Da Vinci’s patron, Duke Sforza. It is cyclical - economies present incentive structures and ask art to adapt and survive its new demands.
Whether patrons, tips or streaming, without these incentive structures, we would not have these works of great artistry as we know them today, if at all.
Generally then, ignoring the force of payment in art misrepresents artistic processes throughout history. History itself recognizes this over a century ago, in Marx’s wordy Critique of Political Economy:
The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.
In more understandable terms, John Storey explains that “Marx is suggesting that the way a society organizes the means of its material production will have a determining effect on the type of culture that society produces or makes possible.”. This is to say that artists and society as a whole have always been inevitably, unconsciously affected by how things are made- the surrounding economic forces. If you read the ‘the general process of social, political and intellectual life’ as expansive enough to include the production of art, consider the ‘mode of production’ to be the time-honoured payment relationship between artist and patron. These two have always been co-dependant, for without art the idea of patronage is redundant, but without patronage artists wouldn’t be able to feed themselves whilst training in and focusing on their arts. Conglomerate organizations like streaming platforms are simply the newest incarnation of patron. As a result, they finance and inevitably influence artistic creation, as patrons have always done.
Nay-sayers will argue that artists are often not artists by profession but recreation to contest this view. Fumbling desperately to find artists ‘untainted’ by their art’s financial pursuits, they may point to poets like William Carlos Williams or musicians like Philip Glass. But aren’t these artists influenced second-handedly? That is- influenced by work that has been financed by patrons or similar financial incentive structures? Philip Glass himself cites Mozart as a primary influence of his.
Of course, it would be simplistic to say that all pop music and more widely, art, is a commodity. It’s rather undeniable that something else propelled these artists’ creativity, before their skill found fame and routinely produced profitable commodities. I am not contesting this. I’m arguing that it’s unhelpful to dismiss pop music on the grounds that it is a commodity, because in this line of thinking, we risk dismissing all art as worthless.
instead of meeting the music of our time with anxious condemnation, we should turn this cynical eye onto the questions themselves. Maybe our question shouldn’t be ‘Where is the music going?’ at all but ‘Why are we devaluing the music that we are being given?’ A song’s length is not a whole or accurate representation of its artistry. Nor is its financial appeal unsightly or underhanded, but a part of the overall interpretation of that artist’s experience of the world. Indeed, in the time-honored relationship between an artist’s payment and their art - condemning the shortening of pop songs should seem as ridiculous as determining the value of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by weighing the book.